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One Big Question: Does Colten Brewer need another pitch?

The cutter/curveball combo sounds intriguing, but it may not work in practice.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Colten Brewer.

The Question: Does Colten Brewer need a fastball?

We talked yesterday, in a short break from Mookie Mania, about Ryan Brasier and more broadly about the importance of one or two middle relievers stepping up. While none of the names in isolation inspire all that much confidence, there are enough here where it seems much more probable that at least one will take a step forward. As we move down to the roster we find ourselves with another player in this mix in Colten Brewer. We also continue to build off yesterday’s entry in another way. After talking about Brasier getting his fastball back on Wednesday, on Thursday we look at the possibility of Brewer simply throwing a fastball at all and whether or not that could be the key to unlocking his next level.

Let’s go back to last year, when the Red Sox brought (almost) the entire band back from the 2018 roster. Clearly, that did not work out, but we’re not here to re-litigate that. I mention it because Brewer was the only addition to the 40-man roster from outside the organization over that offseason. I think that led some (myself included) to be more inclined to find reasons for excitement with the righty. He was a spin rate darling at a time when spin rate was really starting to enter the mainstream consciousness, and that combined with the presence of Brian Bannister led some (again, myself included) to conclude that he was a legitimate breakout candidate.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Ultimately, Brewer did end up spending the majority of the season on the roster, making 58 appearances and tossing 54 23 innings. I gotta be honest, I don’t remember him throwing that often. Anyway, the numbers were not great. At the end of the year he had pitched to a 4.12 ERA, a 4.74 FIP and a 5.20 DRA with a 21 percent strikeout rate and a 13 percent walk rate. To be fair, the absurd run environment around baseball in 2019 make some of those numbers look worse than they really are (the DRA, for example, was only seven percent worse than league-average), but whichever way you slice it this certainly was not an impact arm.

To me, the most interesting thing about Brewer is his arsenal, which is headed by his curveball. Like Matt Barnes and Brandon Workman, he throws that breaking ball a lot. According to Baseball Savant he threw it 45 percent of the time, the seventh highest rate in baseball among the 610 pitchers who threw at least 250 pitches. It also ranked highly in the aforementioned spin rate, coming in at number 40 on that same list of pitchers. On top of that, and more importantly, it was executed very well! Brewer got whiffs 37 percent of the time on the pitch while allowing an expected wOBA of .283 and an actual wOBA of .306. The curveball contributed to the high walk rate — just as it did for Barnes and Workman — but overall it was a very good weapon.

Along with the curveball, Brewer throws a cutter, which he threw 42 percent of the time in 2019. (He also threw a slider 11 percent of the time, and it should be noted that cutters and sliders are often conflated in these pitch classification systems.) It’s a strange arsenal, throwing only cutters and curveballs. That is not the same as saying it is an arsenal that cannot work, but it didn’t work in 2019. The cutter was simply not good, producing a whiff rate of just 17 percent, an expected wOBA of .380 and an actual wOBA of .402. I’ll say what I say often in these kinds of paragraphs: No pitch exists in a vacuum and every offering is part of a sequence. That said, these numbers stink!

Still, I’m not going to suggest Brewer alter his arsenal only because of single-pitch stats from one season as a reliever. This is ultimately still only 431 cutters over the entire season, not exactly a huge sample. It is those numbers combined with what is simply the nature of this two-pitch mix. Both the curveball and the cutter are designed to move fairly significantly, and designed to be thrown along the edges, which can be good in limiting contact but also can lead to high walk rates. It’s a lot harder to get into a 3-1 or 2-0 situation where you need to throw a strike with a cutter than if you had a four-seam fastball to lean on. That’s not to say it’s impossible and you can certainly get that cutter over plenty, but it’s more difficult and an easy way to walk 13 percent of your opponents.

More specifically, it really limits you against right-handed hitters. Brewer was, frankly, a disaster against righties last season, allowing a wOBA of .375 with a 17 percent strikeout rate and a 15 percent walk rate. Among the 337 right-handed pitchers who faced at least 75 right-handed hitters, Brewer had the 29th highest opponents’ wOBA and had the fifth lowest K%-BB%. Thinking about it, this arsenal not working against righties makes sense. Brewer primarily throws two pitches, both of which break away from righties. This makes it very difficult to work the inside part of the plate, because if you hang one it’s an automatic baserunner via a hit by pitch. Similarly, if you start it a bit to far out, it will break right into the middle of the zone and get smoked. That takes away half the strike zone, making things a lot easier for your opponents.

Brewer has a really weird arsenal that, if executed well, could probably work! A good cutter is a really good pitch, as is a good curveball! The issue is that there is a much smaller margin for error, and once you fall behind you find yourself in a pickle. I don’t think it’s fair to say Brewer needs a complete overhaul, but I think it’s probably time to work a fastball in somewhere. Even if he only throws it about 15 percent of the time, that should still give him a more effective pitch when he needs a strike and also open up the inner half against righties. It’s worth a shot!